Nestled in southern Russia, Kalmykia is a vibrant, compact region that begs to be explored. Often discovered by travelers en route to the Astrakhan or Volgograd regions, its capital, Elista, offers a unique blend of endless steppes, sacred Buddhist shrines, and the unparalleled warmth of its local residents. Here are five compelling reasons to venture off the beaten path and experience the wonders of Kalmykia, even if just for a couple of days.

1. Discover the Wonders of Buddhist Culture

Kalmykia may not be the only region in Russia where the majority of the population practices Buddhism, but it certainly stands out from the rest. While Buryatia, Tuva, Altai, and the region of Baikal are all located in the Asian part of Russia, Kalmykia holds the unique distinction of being the only Buddhist republic in all of Europe! This fascinating destination is home to several Buddhist shrines, including the magnificent Golden Abode of Buddha Shakyamuni. This enormous, snow-white structure is adorned with glistening golden roofs, creating a truly awe-inspiring sight. As you explore the perimeter of the building, you’ll discover prayer drums containing sacred mantras. It is said that when these drums are unwound, the mantras are read aloud. Step inside the temple and you’ll be greeted by a nine-meter-tall statue of Buddha – the largest of its kind in both Russia and Europe. This stunning piece is covered in gold leaf and encrusted with dazzling diamonds. Visitors to the monastery are warmly welcomed and can engage with monks, healers, practitioners of Tibetan medicine, and astrologers. These hospitable individuals are more than happy to discuss their people and religion, providing a truly enriching experience for all who venture to the enchanting land of Kalmykia.

Another must-see destination for Buddhists is the Syakusn-Syum Monastery, affectionately known as the “holy abode of enlightened monks.” Situated just six kilometers from Elista and near the quaint village of Arshan, this sacred hurul serves as the spiritual epicenter of education within the republic. The Dalai Lama himself has graced the monastery with his presence on multiple occasions.

Discover quaint Khurules in various settlements throughout the republic of Kalmykia. Marvel at the unique architecture in Lagani, explore the fascinating tantric monastery in Gorodovichovsk’s local temple – the only one of its kind in Europe – and immerse yourself in the rich cultural experiences of Yashkul, Tsagan Amane, and Small Derbetah. Don’t miss the chance to visit these hidden gems on your journey through this captivating region.

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2. Experience a Different Country Without Ever Leaving Russia

Kalmykia’s prevalent practice of Buddhism has greatly influenced the architectural landscape of its cities, particularly in Elista. This picturesque city boasts an array of vibrant monuments, such as several suburgans (monolithic ritual structures) including the Step of Reconciliation, the Stupa of Enlightenment, and the Seven Days Pagoda. Upon entering the Friendship Park, visitors are greeted by the striking Golden Gate “Altn Bosch,” adorned with illustrations depicting the past and present lives of the Kalmyk people. These unique structures evoke images of Tibet, Indonesia, or China, depending on the scope of your imagination and travel experience. Rest assured, photographs of these stunning attractions will undoubtedly garner attention on your Instagram feed!

Nestled within the residential districts of Kalmykia’s capital, near Chess City (constructed for the 33rd Chess Olympiad in 1998), you’ll find streets reminiscent of Uzbekistan. To shield homes from the relentless heat and dusty steppe winds, residents have adorned their houses with intricately carved panels, offering a unique and picturesque sight for visitors to explore.

3. Discover Kalmykia’s Unique Culinary Delights

Kalmyk cuisine may come as a surprise even to those living in nearby regions, despite being neighbors. The thought of tea with butter, soup made from innards, and a stomach baked in the ground might not sound too appealing, but rest assured, these unique dishes are actually quite delicious! So, let’s dive into the world of Kalmyk cuisine and explore its delectable main offerings.

  • Dotur is a must-try delicacy when visiting Kalmykia. This hearty soup features a rich broth filled with tender lamb giblets, including liver, scar, and kidneys. The dish is enhanced with the addition of fat and blood, providing a unique and robust flavor. To complete the experience, Dotur is served with freshly sliced raw onions, adding a refreshing crunch to each bite. Don’t miss out on this local favorite during your travels!
  • Mahan Silkytan, a delectable soup featuring tender chunks of lamb brisket, whole potatoes, and a generous helping of onions, is another must-try entrée in Kalmykia. Rooted in Mongolian tradition, this dish is not only delicious but also believed to have curative properties, capable of remedying heartburn and enhancing one’s love life. So, when in Kalmykia, don’t miss the opportunity to indulge in this flavorful and potentially life-changing culinary experience!
  • Segseryk – a delectable offering of succulent boiled lamb on the bone, served with scrumptious homemade dough. This culinary delight shares similarities with Dagestan’s famed khinkal, making it a must-try for foodies exploring the region.
  • Salmon, a local dish featuring tender lamb liver fried to perfection in a delicate lattice of rich lamb fat. This mouth-watering dish is just one of the many reasons to plan a visit to this unique destination.
  • Borzoki, a staple in Kalmyk cuisine, are flat tortillas fried to crispy perfection in boiling oil. These delectable treats offer a unique flavor combination, reminiscent of doughnuts with a hint of woodiness. Typically, locals enjoy their borzoki as a bread substitute, paired with a steaming bowl of soup. Don’t miss the chance to savor this authentic Kalmyk delight on your visit!
  • Kur, a traditional Kalmyk shepherd’s dish, is still prepared today for special celebrations. This ancient meal involves cutting up ram meat and placing it inside the lamb’s stomach, which is then carefully sewn shut. The packed stomach is then buried in a hole in the ground, covered with a mixture of ash and coal, and finally topped with soil. Left to slow-cook underground for around 10 to 20 hours, Kur offers a unique taste of Kalmykia’s rich culinary heritage.
  • Horsemeat is a delicacy enjoyed by many Kalmyks. Local supermarkets are stocked with a variety of options, including jerky, dried meat, traditional cassock sausages, and fresh tenderloin. As an added bonus, adventurous travelers in Kalmykia often get the chance to sample another exotic treat – camel meat!
  • Indulge in Kalmykia’s rich dairy offerings, such as kumys, a delightful fermented mare’s milk, or chigyan, a unique blend of kefir and sourdough. Don’t miss out on shuyurumg fat, a tasty dry curd, and khusan, delicious cakes made from dried cottage cheese. Treat your taste buds to these local delicacies and experience the distinct flavors of this fascinating region.
  • Jomba, a traditional Kalmyk tea, may not be everyone’s cup of tea, but those who acquire a taste for it often fall head over heels, making sure to buy the unique tile tea as a souvenir. This distinctive national beverage is crafted from tile tea, milk or cream, butter, salt, nutmeg, and bay leaf. Perfect for any weather, Jomba not only quenches your thirst on a hot day but also provides warmth during the cold. So, give this intriguing concoction a try and discover the flavors of Kalmykia.
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4. Discover the Intriguing History of the Kalmyks

The rich history of the Kalmyk people is filled with dramatic twists and turns, and an engaging tour guide will bring it to life without any dry academic jargon. Originating as nomadic Mongols, the Kalmyks migrated from Central Asia to the shores of the Caspian Sea. While they maintained friendly relations with the Don Cossacks, they often found themselves in conflict with the tsarist authorities. In a dark chapter during the Soviet era, the entire Kalmyk population was forcibly deported from their homeland to Siberia and the far North in 1943. The appalling conditions of their deportation led to numerous deaths and contributed significantly to the small size of the Kalmyk community today.

The Elysian monument “Exodus and Return” stands as a poignant dedication to the deportation of the Kalmyk people. Crafted by the enigmatic sculptor Ernst the Unknown, this evocative piece was cast in New York before being presented to the Kalmyk community in 1996. Rich with symbolism and allusion, the memorial offers a fascinating experience for visitors, although its exploration can be challenging due to the somber subject matter reflecting the suffering of the Kalmyk people.

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“Exodus and Return” isn’t the sole sculpture in Elista that pays homage to Kalmyk history and culture. Take a stroll through Friendship Park and you’ll come across a monument dedicated to Eelyan Ovla, the narrator of the beloved Kalmyk epic, “Jangar.” As you enter the city, you’ll be greeted by the striking “Golden Rider” sculpture, a tribute to the main character of this cherished national work. There’s no better way to immerse yourself in the rich heritage of Kalmykia.

5. Discover the Enchanting Steppe

The vast steppe of Kalmykia may appear exotic to those from Central Russia, but don’t assume it’s just a barren expanse of scorched earth stretching for hundreds of kilometers. This unique region boasts an array of natural wonders, including hot springs such as those found in Har Buluk and near the village of Adyk. You’ll also discover the saline Lake Manych-Gudilo, home to nesting pink pelicans, and the therapeutic waters of the Great Yashaltin Lake, renowned for its remarkable mineral content. The Kalmyk steppe truly comes alive in spring, particularly in April, when it transforms into a lush, green carpet adorned with fragrant grasses and vibrant tulips. Be sure to explore the Hanata and Black Lands reserves, where camels, saiga antelope, and herds of wild horses roam and graze freely, offering an unforgettable experience for any traveler.

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Janet Benoir is an esteemed travel journalist renowned for her vivid storytelling and deep cultural insights. With over 20 years of experience, her work has graced the pages of prestigious publications such as "Geography Insider Malaysia" and "Traveling + Exploring". Her passion for adventure and unique narratives has led her to over 80 countries, immersing herself in local cultures and traditions. Janet's eye-opening features, which artfully blend history, culture, and personal anecdotes, resonate with readers globally.